Herlene Benjamin, a professional in the oil and gas industry and an aspiring female leader, discusses combatting prejudices and creating space as a strong female leader.
Executive MBA participant Surbhi Gupta takes us through her career journey and shares her advice for young women to ‘Break the Bias’ as part of this year’s International Women’s Day celebrations.
Firstly, can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I am an experienced Medical Devices Executive, with a track record of successfully leading multi-functional teams to develop prototype device towards clinic ready products. With over 15 years’ experience in commercialising early stage healthcare opportunities, I’ve also gained practical experience in creating spin-outs, developing business plans and strategies for young companies, attracting investment for new ventures, and putting teams together.
Whilst currently undergoing an Executive MBA (London) at Warwick Business School, I also head the commercial team at Precision Robotics Ltd. leading on Clinical Affairs, Quality, Regulatory, Business Development and IP.
What made you choose you career?
I was interested in science from a very young age and thus wanted to pursue a career in the subject. Biochemistry was an upcoming field in the early 90’s so I decided to do a Masters, and later a PhD, in the subject back home in India. I then wanted to move away from basic fundamental research and see my work applied in a practical environment. I made a transition into Intellectual Property and Commercialisation of Early-Stage Research. I have now been an expert on medical devices development for last several years.
It is quite satisfying to see my projects have a direct impact on people’s lives. I can’t say that I always knew that this is what I wanted my career to look like. I have made choices and grabbed opportunities at the right time to shape my career path.
Who would you say inspired you the most?
My mom inspired me the most. She had a very modest upbringing in a small town in India, growing up in a very tough environment without many opportunities, but she made the best of what she was given. She was always very positive and inspired me to be my best. She was an artist and an entrepreneur. I learnt from her how to be resilient and to never lose hope.
How has WBS supported you in your career?
WBS has been a fantastic help so far. I have attended some career workshops which gave some useful and practical tips. Recently for a job interview I requested 1:1 support, which was promptly organised by the Careers Team. They helped me with mock interviews and more, which was critical for my success in the real interview.
Have you ever faced prejudice in the workplace? How so? How did you handle the situation?
Yes, unfortunately I have had to face prejudice both for being a female and for being brown! In meetings full of white male leaders, it’s sometimes easy for the group to disregard views from a female leader. Most of the time, the signs are very subtle. Over the years I have learned to read these subtle prejudices and taught myself not to let it impact me.
The best way to handle such instances is to be confident in yourself. It’s easier said than done, because at times such prejudices can bring your confidence down. I have always reminded myself in these situations that I have to work extra hard to be in this leadership position compared to some of my male colleagues. So therefore, I am definitely smarter than them!
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career so far?
The medical device industry is dominated by engineers, which are mostly men. I have faced bias for not being male nor an engineer. Gaining respect from co-leaders and the team I lead is crucial for my success. My biggest challenge was to have been accepted by this community in the first place. I was always confident that, with time, my co-workers will appreciate the value I bring to the table. Most of the time this turns out to be true, but there have been instances when my talent and skills have not been able to overcome these biases. In such scenarios I have chosen to leave those organisations.
What is unique about the path you chose to pursue?
My career path has been really unique. I moved from being a Bench Scientist to an Intellectual Property Expert, to a Medical Device Regulatory Expert, which is unheard of in my sector. I wouldn’t say that I pursued this path strategically. I think I was just open to challenges and grabbed opportunities when they arose. I have been very lucky in having some great mentors on the way who trusted me to do unusual challenging things. Luck plays a big part in your success. Being at the right place at the right time is hugely important.
What inspirational message can you give to young women reading this?
I would say don’t be afraid to be yourself. I know this sounds cliché but it’s true. Sometime we try to imitate our male colleagues by thinking this is how leaders must behave. But more and more with experience I have realised that being genuine, and being feminine, is my biggest strength. There is no need to mellow this down. You can be a great leader whilst preserving your soft feminine side.
Find out more about our Executive MBA (London) programme here.
Find out about other Inspiring Women at WBS.